Since August 5 marked the 21st anniversary of President Clinton signing FMLA into law, I’ve been thinking about how much our nation has progressed since the 1990s. Granted I’m only 22 years old, I do realize that a lot of my retrospective thinking may seem amateur and a bit materialistic compared to those who have seen our nation through a Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement and Cold War. In my case, I’ve been focusing my nostalgia on what I, as my age suggests, know and understand best – technology. From a technological perspective, when FMLA was implemented in 1993, the word “iPhone” was futuristic and weird, AOL chat rooms were on the rise, and the idea of watching entire movies and television shows on a single website (hello, Netflix) was completely unheard of.
You may be wondering how the progression of technology applies to the passage of FMLA, the federal law that grants employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or an ill family member. For one, it helped me gauge the large amount of time that’s inevitably changed our nation since the law’s enactment in 1993. The advancement of the smart phone, tablet, flat screen – you name it – has made communicating across the world so much easier. In ways that were once unimaginable, technology continues to accommodate the changing demands and dynamics of American culture.
Thinking of the rapid progression of social media, networking and even romantic modes of communication made me question: if our social lives are consistently being simplified by a nationwide acceptance of new technologies year by year, why can’t this be the case for policies that benefit our careers and professional lives? Though FMLA does provide up to 12 weeks of job protected leave for workers eligible, as our nation’s cost of living continue to rise, the option of taking unpaid leave is problematic and unrealistic for too many workers. In a nation that takes pride in its ability to keep up with and even stay ahead of quickly changing trends in touch screen, Bluetooth and wireless technology, it seems silly to me that the U.S. is one of only three remaining countries that do not mandate paid maternity leave. In comparison, our Northern neighbor Canada offers up to 50 (yes, 50!) weeks of paid leave for new mothers.
It’s still startling that as a nation, we are so far behind the curve of progressive, family-friendly workplace policies. As a recent college graduate who is new to the Campaign for Paid Family Leave, I have spent a large portion of my time working on the campaign in a constant state of surprise that a system of paid leave is not already in place. While FMLA has reportedly helped more than 35 million workers keep their jobs and health insurance,[i] it was implemented as the first of what should have been many steps in recognizing that men and women need help in balancing professional and family responsibilities. Today, the option of unpaid leave is ludicrous for countless workers who are eligible for FMLA but unable to support themselves and their families under the financial burdens precipitated by the law’s standard 12 weeks without income.
In a nation where life is constantly simplified by the invention of new technologies (which are very cool, don’t get me wrong), why is it increasingly difficult to accommodate the demands of working parents and caregivers? Since the implementation of FMLA in 1993, the U.S. has progressed in unthinkable ways – from advances in science and technology to the rise of the internet age – but in debatably some of our nation’s most important areas, such as the development of policies to accommodate the needs of working families; without question our nation has fallen behind.
While FMLA has been successful in setting a standard for addressing the needs of mothers and fathers who may struggle to balance work and family responsibilities, it is critical to the well-being of our nation’s workforce that the law continues to progress. By passing a statewide system of paid family leave, Connecticut will be at the forefront of what will hopefully become a national mandate that provides some pay to workers who need to take time off to tend to a family emergency or the birth of a new child. The United States is constantly at the forefront of progressive nations across the world; lack of a mandated system of paid family leave should not be what sets us back.
Madeline Granato is a policy and research intern for the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, entering her first year as a Master’s in Social Work student.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons License, Scott McLeod, www.flickr.com/photos/retrocactus/7179067109
[i] Meric, Linda. Expand FMLA – Good for Women, Good for Families, Good for All. Huffington Post, August 5, 2014.